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Revolutionary Science

Jed Buchwald

Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years. Charles Coulston Gillispie. xii + 751 pp. Princeton University Press, 2004. $80.

The first two decades after World War II witnessed a series of remarkable works in the history of science written by a small but devoted group of scholars. Among them were Clifford A. Truesdell, a specialist in continuum mechanics who wrote its history and founded the journal Archive for History of Exact Sciences; Stillman Drake, who put experiment back at the center of Galileo's interests; I. Bernard Cohen, who wrote extensively on Newton and many other topics and produced the first modern edition of the great Principia; Richard S. ("Sam") Westfall, Newton's biographer; Thomas S. Kuhn, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been immensely influential; Henry Guerlac, who wrote on many subjects, notably on Lavoisier and Laplace; Otto Neugebauer, whose A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy remains unsurpassed; and others. The only member of this extraordinary postwar group of scholars still alive is Charles Gillispie, whose first book on the history of science dates to 1951, more than half a century ago.

Like everyone in this cohort, Gillispie managed to remain an active and acute scholar long past the age when most people cease productive work. And he has now given us the full fruits of many decades of research into science in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when (and where) the endeavor was shaped both intellectually and institutionally into its modern form.

Temple of DendaraClick to Enlarge Image

Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years is the second of two volumes; the first, which dealt with the period at the end of the ancien régime in France, was originally published in 1980 and has now been reissued by Princeton University Press. Taken together, the two parts of Science and Polity carry the reader into the heart of French science just before and after the revolution. But they do far more than that, for both volumes, and especially the second, paint gripping portraits of individuals as they struggled to create places for themselves and for the institutions that they envisioned in circumstances filled with strife and opportunity.

The story has so many parts, some overlapping, others only indirectly connected, and so thoroughly does Gillispie know his subject, that his account reads more like Thomas Carlyle's gripping The French Revolution: A History than a dry and bloodless effort of modern scholarship. Like Carlyle, Gillispie seems to feel what his subjects felt, to enter with them into the stresses, difficulties and challenges of the moment. And Gillispie's history, like Carlyle's, must be read as a journey through the period, with all its vicissitudes, and not as a linear narrative or as a monograph aiming to prove a point of interest to only a few specialists.

The pose of detachment that so often characterizes much modern scholarship (even when it is hardly detached at all) is clearly not for Gillispie—despite the fact that one of his most influential books is titled The Edge of Objectivity. But there is no inconsistency here, because Gillispie holds himself and his subjects up to moral scrutiny, a morality based on the conviction that scientific work, more than any other form of human endeavor, aims to overcome the prejudices and demands of the moment. Criticizing historians' tendencies in recent times to play up the underdog and to downplay the importance of individuals, Gillispie writes (for example) of the metric system that

... much historiography of science has become as sociopolitical in vein as ordinary history, and certain of its practitioners discount the claims of science to be the rational mediator between humanity and nature. Instead, such authors explain the success or failure of theories as a function of the structure of power and attribute the choices scientists make, not to technical factors, which are taken as pretenses to be seen through, but to their interests, more or less disguised.

Gillispie's history has no truck with this way of thinking, for it presents instead a detailed account of these technical factors, as well as of the institutions and personalities, that forged science in France.

The book's nine chapters range from a careful account of the involvement of scientists in the early revolutionary Constituent Assembly, through discussions of education, the profoundly important creation of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, the development of the metric system, and the years of the Terror, war and reaction. Along the way we meet some astonishingly colorful and often tragic characters. There are, for instance, the unfortunate Jean-Sylvain Bailly, a mediocre astronomer who became Mayor of Paris and met his end during the Terror, and the great chemist Lavoisier, a member of the General Tax Farm, who never could do things halfway and who thought that rational deliberation would always trump emotion. He too felt the kiss of Madame Guillotine, and none of his politically well-placed confreres (including the mathematician Gaspard Monge and the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet) "said a word or lifted a finger." We meet as well the young Laplace, onetime collaborator of Lavoisier and eventually a central figure in French mathematics and physics, as well as a sometime administrator, of whom Napoleon remarked that "he brought the spirit of infinitesimals to administration."

Gillispie includes a fascinating chapter on the Egyptian expedition organized by Napoleon, who brought along on it many savants, as scientists and other scholars were known at the time. Although the expedition was a military failure, it gave rise both to scientific archaeology and to unfortunate interactions between Europe and the Near East, which bedevil the world to this day. In the chapter "Scientists at War," Gillispie shows that the initiative for the production of novel weaponry came from the scientists themselves, who had to persuade a reluctant military. He notes, however, that "the more innovative weapons and techniques devised by the experts overreached either the capacity of industry or the imagination of commanders, or both, and awaited future realization." Gillispie also describes and analyzes the final development of the metric system and the foundation of the first modern school of engineering, the École Polytechnique, with its elaborately structured curriculum, which at Laplace's instigation included intense training in pure analysis.

The book concludes with a chapter on what Gillispie terms "positivist science"—a chapter that largely neglects specific theories and experiments and instead concentrates on the process by which disciplines formed during a crucial period (circa 1800 to 1830), one that witnessed the creation in France of an extraordinary array of novel advances. These included the wave theory of light, the theory of thermal diffusion, the concept of adiabatic change and its application to gases (under the assumption that heat is a conserved substance), the application of advanced analysis to electricity and magnetism (Siméon Denis Poisson), the origins of electrodynamics (André Marie Ampère), elasticity (Sophie Germain and Augustin Louis ­Cauchy) comparative anatomy (Georges Cuvier), thermodynamics (Sadi Carnot) and many others.

Indeed, no other period since the 17th century matches those years for the broad production of new and (for the most part) enduring science, except perhaps the first third of the 20th century. All this during and in the aftermath of Napoleonic conquest and defeat. Paraphrasing with approval Auguste Comte, the philosopher of positivism, Gillispie writes that science in Comte's "positive" stage "is no longer a quest for metaphysical truth"; it is "composed of laws, not theories," and laws are "correlations of observable facts." And "the goal of science" becomes the making of "accurate predictions based on exact knowledge of the facts."

Some might argue that Gillispie here and there delves too deeply into the work and fate of individuals (such as the unfortunate Condorcet, who was spared the guillotine only because he died, probably of a stroke, in his prison cell ), but they would be wrong, because it is precisely these intimate details that breathe life into what might otherwise have been a solid and illuminating but rather dry narrative. And some might also argue that Gillispie somewhat underplays the degree to which scientists of the period—even those who were not direct contributors—were gripped by the drama of so many new theoretical and experimental discoveries. But they would also be wrong, because Gillispie's aim was to portray the emergence of professional disciplines, of a physics based on mathematics, a comparative anatomy based on correlating parts and a physiology based on vivisection. And in that he has succeeded admirably. Scientists will enjoy this book for its insight into the life of science at a critical period in the formation of modern disciplines; historians will learn a great deal indeed from Gillispie's extensive coverage and perceptive remarks.

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